Pandemic drives up free school meal numbers

Almost 1,000 more school pupils in Hartlepool became eligible for free school meals during the pandemic, new figures show.
Free school meal numbers increaseFree school meal numbers increase
Free school meal numbers increase

Department for Education figures show 5,274 children in the area were eligible for free school meals in January – 35% of all state school pupils.

That was up from 31% the year before, and at the highest level since comparable figures began in 2015-16.

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In Hartlepool 963 children became eligible between March 23, 2020 – when the first national lockdown began – and January.

Of the children, 731 went to primary schools, 226 to secondary schools and six to special schools.

Nationally, 1.74 million pupils (21%) were eligible for free school meals in January – up from 1.44 million in the same month in 2020.

Around 427,000 pupils had a free school meal eligibility start date after the first lockdown – compared to 292,000 for the same period a year previously.

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Children are entitled to free school meals if their parent or carer is on benefits, including income support or receiving Universal Credit, with a household income of less than £7,400 a year.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said the coronavirus crisis had worsened child poverty and called on the Government to make solving it a top priority.

Geoff Barton, ASCL general secretary, said: “Child poverty was already a terrible blight on our society prior to coronavirus. The situation is now even worse, and tackling this issue simply has to be a top priority for the Government.”

The school leaders' union NAHT said the Government can no longer ignore the evidence of the rise in the number of children getting free school meals.

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Paul Whiteman, general secretary of NAHT, said: "This is real money, affecting real children’s lives. If the Government doesn’t take action, they will be abandoning those children most in need at the most critical time.”

The Department for Education said it was providing a £14bn increase in school funding over three years.

A spokeswoman added: "School leaders can target our ambitious recovery funding, worth £3bn in total, to further support disadvantaged pupils with their attainment.”